Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32March 10, 2013
Through Lent, we’ve been walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem and his destiny with the cross.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”3So he told them this parable:
11“There was a man who had two sons.12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
I. I’m sure you recognized Jesus’ parable we usually call The Prodigal Son from Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. As familiar as it is, as we listen to it we can hear God’s voice in the spaces between failure and forgiveness. Whether our own or someone else’s, God whispers, “All this is from me.”
A. Without even considering its place in Jesus’ teaching, it is the epitome of the storyteller’s art. Compact with nothing superfluous, yet vivid in detail. Colorful, complex characters. Relational tension and drama. It was told. Jesus did not publish a collection of stories he wrote. These are meant to be spoken and heard. I tell these Gospel stories to give you a taste of that experience.
B. This story has inspired great art. One of the best is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. You can see it and others with the QR code or website on the back of your bulletin. One is a self-portrait in which Rembrandt portrays himself as the Prodigal living the wild life.
C. I react with personal intensity to this story. As a kid watching something as innocent as Leave it to Beaver on TV, I would cringe when I saw a character headed for trouble and say, “Don’t do that!” Even telling the story this morning, something deep inside of me screams to the younger son, “Stop! You’ll be sorry.” And to the older son, “Go in with a smile and hug your brother, or you’ll regret it.” I ache for the unrecoverable losses in the story.
II. Part of the powerful genius of the story is where Jesus ended, leaving us hanging with huge questions.
A. First, did the elder son go into the party? If so how did he greet his brother? The younger brother was hoping to sneak home and blend in with the hired hands. How did he respond to becoming the center of attention? What tangle of emotions did the father experience as his joy at having the younger son home was tempered by the pain of what he had lost and the tension with the elder son?
B. When the party was over, did the younger son work like a hired hand since he no longer had a stake in the estate? Did he live in the family house or the servant’s quarters? What happened between the brothers in their daily interaction? Did the younger brother save up money to buy a house in town and get another job? What happened to the father’s relationship with each of the sons?
C. What happened after the father died? Who stood where at the funeral? If he was still working for the estate, was the younger brother fired? Were the brothers reconciled or did they go their separate ways, dissolving their relationship? Did they hold onto guilt and resentment?
III. Jesus was prompting us to ask questions about ourselves. Do we have the same sense of entitlement as the younger brother? While you wouldn’t say it this way, do you think the world owes you something? Or do we have the same sense of entitlement as the older brother? “I work hard so I deserve my advantages?” Jesus was getting at something far deeper than the truism that privileges come with responsibilities.
A. We read in Joshua 5 today about God rolling the disgrace of Egypt off of Israel before they celebrate Passover and enter the Promised Land. As a free people in their own land, they must never forget that God freed them from slavery and fed them in the wilderness.
B. 2 Corinthians 5:18 tells us that both our redemption from sin by Christ as well as our ministry of reconciliation that calls others to Christ, is all from God. Do not forget!
C. Prosperity is spiritually dangerous. It distorts the way we view ourselves. Ego creep easily pushes God to the edge.
1. In Deuteronomy 8:17 as Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
2. In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul points directly at us. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”
IV. In this Lenten season of self-examination, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son prompts us to listen for God’s voice in the spaces between failure and forgiveness. Whether our own or someone else’s, God whispers, “All this is from me.”
The church I served in New Jersey had an extensive low-income housing ministry. In connection with that, Habitat for Humanity founder, Millard Fuller, came to speak. In some sense, he experienced the life of both the younger and older brothers. Far from perfect, yet used by God.
He paid his way through Auburn University with entrepreneurial projects such as a service so parents could send birthday cakes to their student children. With a law degree from the University of Alabama, he became a successful lawyer and businessman – a millionaire by age 29. But his marriage and family were in shambles.
In 1968 the Fullers liquidated their wealth, gave it all away to charity and moved into Koinonia Farm, a Christian community in Georgia. From there they went to Zaire (now DR Congo) as missionaries with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). On returning to the U.S. they began a housing ministry with Koinonia Farm that eventually led to Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat for Humanity was already growing rapidly around the world when former President Jimmy Carter raised its profile considerably as the flagship global force for decent, affordable housing.
If you are familiar with Habitat for Humanity, you know about Millard Fuller’s volatile, stormy relationship there. Some of that stemmed from his entrepreneurial, take-charge personality and some from relational and marital issues. I am not intending to hold Millard Fuller up as either a hero and role model or as a fallen, disgraced leader.
Rather, looking through the lens of Jesus’ Prodigal Son story, we see that both great accomplishments and great mercy are God’s gifts. You and I are also younger brothers who have received extravagant grace from God. You and I are also older brothers who are in danger of forgetting that our greatest achievements are also extravagant gifts from God. So in the spaces between failure and forgiveness, listen for the voice of God.